Stars: Jackie Coogan, Allan Nixon and Richard Travis
|I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.|
Mesa of Lost Women is two films in one but that's two too many. It started out under the working title of Tarantula, which would have been original at the time as Jack Arnold's movie of the same name didn't arrive until 1955, but this one didn't arrive at all, partly because the funds started to run out but mostly because writer/director Herbert Tevos was a little too good at driving the cast and crew into quitting. A couple of years later, his replacement was one of the more fascinating names in exploitation cinema, Ron Ormond, who wasn't just a writer, producer and director of low budget movies, but also a vaudeville performer, magician and Air Force colonel. At this point he was known mostly for his Lash LaRue westerns, but this mess proved to be his ticket into an ever more eclectic world that soon included gorilla sleaze, frigid wife sexploitation and Nashville musicals. Eventually he would turn to Jesus and become the foremost name in Christploitation.
Perhaps we can disregard those hour long westerns for PRC because they were too easy. From Mesa of Lost Women on, Ormond had to innovate, to turn out completed pictures by making do with whatever he could piece together from existing footage, networking and showmanship, but he ended up with a stunningly varied set of exploitation pictures that perhaps are only outshone by those of Jack Hill. He cobbled Untamed Mistress together by hacking apart Law of the Jungle, a Sabu picture he could do anything he liked with as long as he didn't use any footage of Sabu. So he added travelogue footage, a leading lady and a guy in a gorilla suit, then marketed it with heavy suggestion of nonexistent interspecies sex. Forty Acre Feud featured half the Grand Old Opry at $250 a song. The Monster and the Stripper was an attempt to make a Russ Meyer movie and a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie at the same time, starring rockabilly singer Sleepy LaBeef.
If he hadn't made a name for himself in psychotronic cinema thus far, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? put it beyond doubt. This film, based around the sermonising of Southern Baptist preacher Estus W Pirkle and financed through church donations, suggests that mini skirts and dancing are a gateway drug to Communist invasion and descent into Hell, making its point clear through graphic rape, torture and indoctrination. And this was just the first of his religious films! Mesa of Lost Women seems tame in comparison, but it's still a patchwork of Z grade nonsense that is fascinating to watch for all the wrong reasons. Apparently Ormond hated it, which may explain why his footage is by far the cheesiest, adding an understated Jackie Coogan as mad scientist Dr Araña, conveniently meaning 'spider' in Spanish, and a wild narration by Lyle Talbot that sounds like a cross between Orson Welles and Vincent Price reading Ed Wood's writing.
Coogan isn't in the film for long, as Tevos apparently shot enough footage that Ormond didn't have to add too much, but he's still credited as the star. The real star is either Harmon Stevens as Dr Leland J Masterson, who is the driving force of much of the plot even though he's almost catatonic throughout, or Robert Knapp as Grant Phillips, the stereotypical rough but romantic hero. Yet Coogan shares top billing with Allan Nixon and Richard Travis. Who are they? Just more friends of Ormond's, it seems, brought in to shoot the framing footage to Tevos's story. Both of them leave the film after a few minutes as we slip into flashback mode, only to return just ahead of the ending. Even when they're in the film, we're just looking at Pepe, one of the most blatantly stereotypical Mexican characters I've ever seen in a movie, with his bug eyes, soft voice and ample belly, not to mention checked shirt and sombrero. '¡Ay, caramba!' he cries and we agree.
His appearance is not the first problem with the film, which has already suffered through three interminable minutes of Lyle Talbot's hyperbolic narration, full of purple prose so grounded in reality that it thinks spiders have six legs. Out in 'the Muerto Desert, the Desert of Death', two souls 'cross the threshold of the limited intellect' to 'a seared wasteland where the vultures wait for the other vultures to die'. They're real, Grant Phillips and Doreen Culbertson by name, not just 'elusive images produced by roasting the optic nerves', and they soon end up at the Amer-Exico Field Hospital. Just as their saviours give them no chance of recovery, Phillips wakes up, itching to tell his story in flashback. 'It all started on the border, a few days back,' he begins but then Ormond must have realised that he only has half the story so we switch to Pepe instead, who has none of it. Yes, this is a flashback in a flashback, told by someone who wasn't there.
If I'm reading the screen correctly, this young couple were in the original film, which seems to have been a melodramatic love triangle with giant spiders. Initially Grant is just a pilot, to the immensely rich Jan van Croft, so guess who Doreen is about to marry for security? To celebrate their wedding night, they fly off somewhere but plane trouble means that they end up at the Berkins Frontier Cantina instead to watch the freaky spider woman Tarantella strut her stuff on the dancefloor. They're immediately given the best table, because van Croft exudes the sort of money that the local peasantry can only dream of, but it doesn't help because their life of bliss is soon turned upside down. Not only is their Chinese valet Wu in secret cahoots with the dancer but also in the bar is Leland J Masterson, who has escaped from Dr Harrison's Sanitarium with a gun and proceeds to fall in lust with Doreen and lead them all on a merry dance.
Now that's all Mesa of Lost Women. In Tarantula I think he enters the film here, completely out of his gourd from moment one, as he walks up to the bar with his collapsible cup that collapses while the bartender is filling it. He sits at a table and grins like a zombie who died during the sex act. When he sees young Doreen he can't help but wander over and ignore her husband to be. 'You're very beautiful,' he says. 'And good.' You'd think he was chatting her up except he promptly sits down and turns into the best human statue I've ever seen on film. He's vaguely reminiscent of Dennis Price but without a single drop of the depth. He's more like W C Fields, if W C Fields was a blissfully happy zombie who could sit at a bar room table for two long scenes without taking a drink. He doesn't move, he doesn't even blink. I actually rewound three times to see if he'd died during production and so had to be replaced by a cardboard cutout.
He's obviously insane, so when George, his nurse, arrives in a car with 'Dr Harrison's Sanitarium' written all over it, our only surprise is that Ormond's footage told us that he was locked up in the Muerto State Asylum. He's apparently waiting for Tarantella to start dancing her freaky spider dance so that he can announce to his companions that she's evil and shoot her to death. 'I only did what had to be done,' he says and promptly turns his back on the dying dancer, so that we can start a drinking game built around the number of times that George and the other people he kidnaps and takes for a plane ride completely fail to take the most obvious opportunities to steal his gun away from him. Masterson is the single most unthreatening gunman that I've ever seen, so mild mannered that if you asked nicely he'd hand over the gun. He sleepwalks through the rest of the film and yet everyone seems happy to have him in charge, just because he has a gun.
This was the last role Harmon Stevens would ever play on film and it's certainly the largest. He'd made seven previous films, only one of which garnered a credit: as Real Estate Agent in a Rock Hudson movie called Has Anybody Seen My Gal. I don't think I'll ever get his inane grin out of my head because it dominates the film by doing precisely nothing. Every line of his dialogue seems to be wasted but somehow they stick anyway. 'I want to fly. Thou shalt obey!' he commands van Croft's pilot, even though the plane isn't fixed. 'Birds fly without motors and so will we.' While he's lulling us into a hypnotic trance, we vaguely remember that Phillips, the pilot, is the man at the beginning of the film who gets plucked out of the desert to safety. This is his flashback, sort of, and he's finally had the common decency to show up in it, taking advantage of that fact by trying to steal attention through proclamations that everything's OK even when it patently isn't.
'Nothing seriously wrong so far,' he announces after realising that they've been flying a hundred degrees off course and the left engine is on fire. I can't remember what he says when he decides to crash land on the next convenient mesa but they manage it, only for us to realise, get this, that it's Zarpa Mesa! Holy plot convenience, Batman! If only Jackie Coogan could have put on a Bogart impersonation and announced, 'Of all the gin joints in all the world you had to walk into mine,' but no, he just has his minions run around the forest instead. It just isn't the same, even if they're played by most of the interesting people in the film. The two midgets are John George and Angelo Rossitto, two of the most recognisable little people in the business. The blonde is Dolores Fuller, Ed Wood's girlfriend, the one with the angora sweater. Another is Mona McKinnon, who made three of her five films for Wood; she was Paula Trent in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Fortunately we get to meet Dr Araña again because we missed him and wondered if he'd ended up like Lyle Talbot, who presumably rants on for so long at the beginning only as a reason to make it worth his while to turn up to record, given that he wasn't going to be in the rest of the film. Jackie Coogan has got a lot of flak for his acting here, but I think that's unfair. It's hardly his greatest role but he merely chose to underplay it as much as he overplayed Uncle Fester. He's freaky subdued, with a lab coat, a huge mole and one eye that is completely closed, so he has an opaque lens to draw attention to it. He has the most outrageous receding hairline I've seen this side of a Klingon, as it recedes so far down the back of his neck that it turns into the precise opposite of a mohawk. He also hasn't a shred of enthusiasm at all about anything, even though he lives in a secret underground lab surrounded by a bevy of beauties and a mob of midgets.
Of course, none of them are really human, because they're the products of Araña's experiments to combine spiders with women. Apparently in the spider world, the females are beautiful while the men are puny and unimportant, so that's how it turns out when they become people too. Given that I'm sure Ormond didn't allow many retakes, if any, I'm stunned at how deliriously deadpan Coogan remained while spouting Z grade gibberish. And that's 'gibberish' with a hard G not a J. He says so. 'The tarantulas began to yield amazing results,' Araña explains to Masterson, 'they grew as large as human beings, began developing new reasoning powers and I found I had the telepathic power to communicate with them.' If you hadn't guessed, Araña is a couple of legs short of a spider. 'If we are successful, I shall have a super female spider, with a thinking and reasoning brain, a creature that someday may control the world, subject to my will.'
I enjoyed Coogan's portrayal, like a heavily sedated Vincent Price, and I can see where he was coming from. He's beyond morality to the point where everything is just another experiment. While Masterson rants and raves at him. 'You're evil!' he cries. 'You must be destroyed!' Araña takes it all utterly in stride as if he was being told the football scores. 'Regrettable,' he says, as calm as a cucumber. 'I was hoping for a colleague but at least we have another experimental subject.' You have to give the mad doctor props too, because he created a whole slew of lovely young ladies to work in his secret lab. They're all silent and they wear strange wigs that look like they have cobwebs on them, except for one who's more like Morticia Addams with curlicues. Only Tarantella is scary, as much so as her dance, as we discovered the moment the film began, when she wrapped her long fingernails around a man and kissed him, only for him to drop dead.
So what does that leave us? There's a scary woman who's supposed to be sexy. There's a banal and underplayed mad scientist who's supposed to be the star of the show. There's a lunatic who manages to hold everyone under his power even though he spends most of the film dead on his feet. There's a love triangle that springs out of nowhere and can go back there for all we care. There's a nurse who only stops people disarming his mad murderer of a patient. There's a giant jumping spider who manages to be boring. There's a narrator who rants on and on and then just disappears. Oh, and there's a soundtrack comprised entirely of flamenco guitar and piano, which is about as inappropriate as could be. Perhaps they thought they were shooting on Zorba Mesa as Anthony Quinn was Mexican, after all. It's so inappropriate that Ed Wood stole it for Jail Bait, another connection that suggests that this should be an honorary Ed Wood film. It's bad enough.